What’s the old saw about war? That it’s long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror? Tweaked a little, the line serves pretty well as a description of writer-director Camille Vidal-Naquet’s Sauvage, the story of a gay prostitute’s (Félix Maritaud, in a performance that will surely be called fearless) journey of…well, journey, anyway. All that’s required is the addition of “and/or emotion” at the end.
Some of the boredom is of the ordinary variety: when you’re in retail, whether you’re peddling high-end purses or low-end sex, there’s a great deal of time spent waiting for the right customer to come along, the one whose particular tastes you can satisfy. (In perhaps his weakest directorial decision, Vidal-Nacquet attempts to cover the dullness through the energetic use of his camera: it wobbles, cuts, and zooms in an apparent effort to keep the eye engaged when nothing much is happening.) But some is of a more exotic sort: that of decadence. Whether our dirty angel Leo — he of the accusing, wounded eyes, the sad, pouty mouth, and lithe, lily-white limbs — is smoking crack in a tangle of fellow addicts, dancing shirtless under the strobe lights in the club, or satisfying horny johns, there’s a melancholy monotony about his actions. This is not an exciting life for Leo. Nor is it particularly awful. It’s just life, lived in the moment because there’s not much possibility of a future. (One of the film’s most affecting scenes comes during his visit to a caring, maternal physician; when she asks if he’d like to get off the drugs, he responds, “Why? To do what?” Then when she’s examining him, he uses her proximity to embrace her; the moment aches with childish need.)
Then there are the moments of terror. What do you know, not everyone who hires Leo sees him as a fellow human worthy of respect due to his inherent dignity as a person. Sometimes, the only way to overcome the boredom of decadence is with a little old-fashioned brutality. Or a lot. (One pair of johns decide to quit once the blood begins to flow; for another, that’s when things start getting interesting.)
But Leo’s real interest — or perhaps it’s better to say Vidal-Naquet’s — is in those moments of emotion. Throughout, his great virtue as a lover-for-hire is his pliability: unlike his fellow hustler/best friend Ahd — who insists he’s strictly gay for pay — Leo will mix kissing in with the sucking and screwing. When an older customer discovers he can no longer handle sodomy, Leo is genuinely happy to just stay and cuddle. It isn’t until Ahd takes up with a sugar daddy that he discovers his willingness to please as well as pleasure is born out of a longing he has never named, the denial of which has left him...suffice it to say, there’s a reason for the title.